Hart Health Strategies provides a comprehensive policy briefing on a weekly basis. This in-depth health policy briefing is sent out at the beginning of each week. The health policy briefing recaps the previous week and previews the week ahead. It alerts clients to upcoming congressional hearings, newly introduced bills, regulatory announcements, and implementation activity related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and other health laws.


Congress Returns from Recess: What's Next? cont.

Even though Congress has officially returned from the August recess, the Congressional schedule is still up in the air. What is clear is that there’s a lot to be done and little time to do it. Between now and October 1 (when the current appropriations expire), the House has only eight legislative days, the Senate has twelve, and both chambers will be focused on the upcoming Papal visit. Given that timeframe, there is talk of a continuing resolution (CR) to provide additional funding until the full appropriation package is ready. During the August recess, staff negotiations continued to help define the basic terms of the agreement, but at least two key elements are still left for member-level decisions. First, the duration of the CR could be four weeks, until October 29 to coincide with the expiration of the highway and mass transit programs, or much longer, extending perhaps until December 11. Second, the number of policy riders remains undecided (i.e., how “clean” of a CR), especially as it relates to Planned Parenthood. Given issues with the overall votes and logistical challenges with completing the CR, Republican leaders are currently testing conservative sentiment on alternative votes addressing the Planned Parenthood situation outside the CR package.

One key rationale for Republicans to push for the longer CR duration (until December 11) is to provide both chambers with the opportunity to move forward on reconciliation. The budget-conference agreement included a specific provision related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Specifically, it noted that that “[t]he conference agreement affirms the use of reconciliation for the sole purpose of repealing the President’s job-killing health care law.” Due to the Byrd rule, all provisions within a reconciliation bill must have direct spending implications. Thus, Republicans have noted that two key targets – the individual mandate and the employer mandate – would be significant provisions with budget implications, which could be part of a reconciliation package. Such a package has only a small chance of becoming law, due to President Obama’s inevitable veto of any legislation so dramatically affecting the ACA. However, many view the need to provide such an opportunity for Republican members to voice their concerns with the ACA, given that many new Republicans (especially those in the Senate) have not had a chance to go on the record in opposition to the ACA.

Of course, despite what may happen with respect to reconciliation, once the CR is in place, Congress will still need to provide the full appropriations for fiscal year (FY) 2016. Given the backdrop of the Presidential campaigns, already there is talk of an omnibus, long-term CR (through September 30, 2016), or a “cromnibus” – a combination of an omnibus and long-term CR. If an omnibus is part of this larger discussion, then one key element will be dealing with the Ryan Murray Budget Control Act (BCA) discretionary budget caps, given that President Obama’s FY16 budget assumed that the BCA caps were not in effect and those caps have made for difficult funding decisions.

Beyond the appropriations/CR process, Congress also has several other “must pass” legislation before the end of the calendar year, including increases to the debt limit (which must occur in November or December), addressing expiring tax breaks, extending beyond October 29 key funding to States for highway and transit programs, and the reauthorization of key programs (including the National Defense Authorization and programs related to child nutrition, aviation, pipeline safety, and student loans).

To kick off additional conversation related to the debt limit, the House Ways and Means Committee held a markup of H.R. 692, the “Debt Prevention Act” and H.R. 3442, “Debt Management and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2015” on September 10. H.R. 692 would require the Department of the Treasury to continue to borrow to pay the principal and interest on certain obligations if the debt of the United States exceeds the statutory limit for certain obligations (i.e., payment of the principal and interest on debt held by the public or the Social Security trust funds), as well as report to Congress regarding those obligations. H.R. 3442 would require certain reporting obligations for the Department of Treasury when the debt limit is approached. Both bills were reported out of the Committee on a party-line vote (22-14) potentially foreshadowing future discussions on the topic.

While the House has focused on the debt ceiling processes, the Senate has been focused on the tax extenders. On July 21, 2015, the Senate Finance Committee passed a tax extenders bill (original bill of S. 1946). Generally, the bill would extend over 50 expiring provisions for two years—retroactively from January 1, 2015, through December 31, 2016. In content, the bill is substantially similar to legislation enacted in December 2014 that extended the expiring provisions through December 31, 2014. The House Ways and Means Committee has not yet acted on legislation that would extend beyond 2014 the full package of “tax extenders.” However, the House has already passed legislation to make a number of expiring provisions permanent law. For example, the House in May 2015 passed a bill that would make the research credit permanent. Therefore, as in similar years, Congress will be pressed to deal with the tax extenders prior to the end of this calendar year.

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